Sen. Carl Levin, center, with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, left, and Sen. John McCain at a hearing of the Armed Services Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite — Associated Press)

Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered up a not-so-subtle critique of the news media and the more partisan of his congressional colleagues in remarks Wednesday night, as he received the distinguished service award from the nonpartisan Center for the National Interest.

Having just begun hearings on the administration’s fiscal 2013 defense bill, which includes proposals for controversial cuts, and facing the looming threat of sequestration, Levin said he worried that “rough, contentious public discussion” about the nation’s serious budgetary problems may result in “the best policy for our nation” being drowned out by “partisan vitriol.”

An “increasingly fragmented media, scrambling to hold onto readers, viewers and advertisers” have become more and more focused in highlighting the extremes of our public discourse, Levin said.

He said that a limited number of national newspapers and radio and television networks have been replaced with “200 cable channels, thousands of blogs and Web sites and millions of people on Twitter, all in a 24/7 battle for a slice of audience.”

The result, he said, is that many news outlets “offer simplistic attacks and bombast — not a principled conflict of ideas, but a personalized, partisan contest where scoring points means not offering the best solutions, but winning the day’s news cycle.”

Into this scrum, he added, come “many public figures [who] see that the best way to attract notice is to feed the media’s appetite for the extreme.”

Levin believes he need only point to recent history to illustrate his concerns. Late last year, he complained bitterly that critics of the compromise he fashioned with Republicans over detention provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act had falsely suggested the bill would lead to the indefinite detention of Americans.

“Those who say that we have written into law a new authority to detain American citizens until the end of hostilities are wrong,” said Levin in December. “Neither the Senate bill nor the conference report establishes new authority to detain American citizens — or anybody else.”

On Wednesday, Levin confessed that both Democrats and Republicans have been “vulnerable to the temptation to score partisan points” and that he, too can “think of a time or two when I veered across the line that divides sharp debate from partisanship.”

The senator said the country has a long history of reaching common ground on national security issues. That sense of unity, he observed with what seemed to be more sorrow than anger, appears now to be coming apart.